What Are Dharma Protectors?

Dr. Alexander Berzin: What Are Dharma Protectors? 


Many Dharma practitioners rely on Dharma protectors when they seek protection from fear. Dharma protectors, however, play various roles in different aspects of Buddhism. To understand these, we need to explore the benefits that protector practices can provide us for our daily lives. Let’s look at what it actually means to feel protected and safe, and then we can take a look at some of the methods suggested by the different protection practices in Buddhism. Mainly, we need to look at the essence of the practices themselves, in order to see what we can take from them if we practice them in a more formal way.

A lot of controversy has arisen in Tibetan Buddhism about protectors, with all sorts of arguments about whether various protectors are enlightened beings or not and whether some are ghosts or another type of being. This has led to a lot of confusion. Some people wonder whether protectors are just a Tibetan cultural phenomenon, and some may wonder whether they actually play any role in us becoming Buddhas ourselves. It would therefore also be beneficial to take a look at the history of Dharma protectors in Buddhism to better understand what role they play on the path to enlightenment.

The Three Jewels as the Primary Source of Protection

In the most basic terms, when we talk of protection in Buddhism, we have the Three Jewels of Refuge, namely:

  • The Dharma – the true stoppings of all sources of suffering and the true pathways of mind that bring those stoppings about and which result from them

  • The Buddhas – those who have achieved these true stoppings and true pathways in full on their mental continuums

  • The Sangha – those who have achieved them in part.

On a popular level, some Buddhists might look at Buddha and the various Buddha-figures (yidams) as being akin to gods who can protect them and save them from suffering, much like God or Jesus in the West. This is not a very sophisticated understanding and is not what learned masters would teach. The Three Jewels are not omnipotent figures that can save us from danger. Instead, they indicate a safe direction in life that, if followed, can lead us to achieve exactly what Buddha achieved, and in this way they protect us from suffering and problems. The word “Dharma,” after all, means measures we take in order to hold ourselves back from suffering: in other words, preventive measures.

Buddha stated that it is impossible to eliminate other people’s suffering and problems as though you were pulling a thorn from their foot. The only thing you can do is to show the way for people themselves to overcome their own suffering. This is a very important point when looking at the issue of fear and protection. Basically, nobody can eliminate our fear for us. They might be able to provide a calming atmosphere, but it really is up to us to overcome our own fears. This is the basic approach in Buddhism. Buddhism doesn’t assert any sort of omnipotent force in a Buddha, in a Dharma-protector or in anybody else that can just save us from the dangers we face, like with a snap of the fingers.

The question then becomes, if we turn to the direction of the Three Jewels to protect us from suffering, why would we need any other protectors? Buddha said that in order to go in the safe direction of the Three Jewels, we need to avoid destructive behavior and try instead to act in a positive, constructive way. This means paying attention to karma and the principles of behavioral cause and effect. Why, then, would we need anything more than refuge in the Three Jewels and paying attention to karma? To understand this, we need to look at the development of the Indian tradition to understand how external protectors came in to Buddhism.

In general, people cannot easily or very naturally undertake internal practices to overcome their fears themselves. Most people prefer, at least provisionally, to have some external protection to provide a situation in which to feel a bit safer. Once we feel safer, then in fact it becomes easier to access our own inner ability to overcome fear. It’s important, then, to understand that protector practices came into Buddhism not to solve problems, but to provide the circumstances that would be more conducive for us to solve our problems ourselves.

Early Protectors in Buddhism

The earliest protectors that we find in Buddhism are found widely in both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions, and they were basically adapted from the non-Buddhist Indian traditions. For ease of discussion, let’s call these traditions “Hinduism.” These protectors are the Guardian Kings of the Four Directions, located on the four sides of Mount Meru. Therefore in Tibet, Thailand or China, at the entrance to any Buddhist temple we find large statues or paintings of these Guardian Kings. We can see from this example that Dharma protectors are not an exclusive invention of the Tibetans, but are a feature found throughout the Buddhist sphere. The Guardians are basically there to protect not merely the temple, but the entire country from attack, and are spoken of in terms of politics as well as religion.

It is interesting to note that the name of the North Indian dynasty at the time when Buddhism was entering Tibet was “Pala,” which means “protection.” It’s the same word as is used in the Sanskrit word of Dharma protector: “dharmapala.” In a sense, these guardians were there to protect the state, and the state would protect you, and so they have a flavor of military defense. In a country, there would be a head of state in the central capital, and then generals to patrol and protect the border regions. Similarly, when Dharma protector practice became linked with tantra, we imagine we are a ruling Buddha-figure, like Yamantaka in the center of a mandala, commanding protectors who are at the mandala’s border regions. The Dharma protectors never take the central main position; they are always underneath a ruler, and the ruler is ourselves.

From the Guardians of the Four Directions, the guardians of the ten directions developed. The ten directions include the cardinal and intermediate directions and then above and below. In an unsymmetrical Buddhist way, there are actually fifteen protectors for the ten directions. One of my favorite sayings, from one of my Tibetan teachers who knew English, is “symmetry is stupid.” We like things to be symmetrical and this is a cultural inheritance from the ancient Greeks. But there is no reason why there should be only ten protectors for the ten directions; there can also be fifteen.

For these protectors, Buddhism enlisted various Hindu gods such as Brahma, Indra, Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesh and so forth. At the early stage of this development, these Hindu gods are not converted to Buddhism, but in later practices, they are conferred initiation, as though their caste as protectors was being incorporated into Buddhism. Interestingly, it is always thought that a distinguishing feature of Buddhism is that Buddha did away with castes. This is true, but Buddha only did this for monks and nuns in the monasteries. The lay Buddhists still were referred to in terms of their castes. We can read in the texts, where the Buddha would talk about this or that brahmin making donations to the monastic community. So the caste designations were still there.

Ancient India and Hindu Influences

People who lived in India and believed in these Hindu gods, but who also followed Buddhism, would feel safer in the knowledge that the gods were on their side. Indians tend not to have an exclusivist mentality. Most Indians celebrate the holidays of all the religions found in India, regardless of which religion they themselves follow. So there is a place for the Hindu gods in the Indian Buddhist mentality. It’s the equivalent of how people from a Christian background, who have faith in various saints, might feel more comfortable in knowing that Saint Christopher was out there protecting them as well. This appears to be the mentality behind bringing the Hindu gods into the Buddhist sphere.

Throughout the history of Indian Buddhism there was never a clear distinction between Buddhism and Hinduism among the general populace. Basically, the lay Buddhists followed Hindu customs for their marriages, funerals and birth rites. In Indian society, everybody had their own guru, but one also followed general pan-Indian customs. Buddhists had their Buddhist gurus, but remained completely part of the more general Indian society with which they shared most social customs in common. This is perhaps one of the reasons why nowadays there isn’t so much interest among Indians in India for Tibetan Buddhism. It’s perhaps because they see it as simply another regional form of Hinduism. They consider Tibetan Buddhism in the same category as South Indian Hinduism, Bengali Hinduism and so on. It offers just another set of gurus from another cultural region, so there is no reason to turn to these gurus of another regional part of their own culture.

Following from this feature of a shared pan-Indian culture, we can understand the introduction of protectors into Indian Buddhism that are Buddhist versions of figures found in Hinduism. For instance Ganesh, the elephant-headed god in Hinduism, is incorporated alongside Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri as not only one of the fifteen directional protectors, but also as a Buddha-figure (yidam). It is very interesting from a sociological point of view that, among the Buddhist protectors, there suddenly appears Ganesh, a Hindu god of wealth much worshipped by merchants for success in business.

When we look at protector figures that have specific texts devoted to them in the Tengyur, the collection of translations of the works of the Indian Buddhist masters, however, we only find ritual works concerning three protector figures. Two are forceful figures, namely Shrimati Devi (the Glorious Goddess) and Mahakala (the Great Black One). Both are found also in Hinduism. Shrimati Devi is known in India under many names, such as Kali, Durga or simply Devi. The Tibetans call her “Palden Lhamo,” an exact translation of the Sanskrit, Shrimati Devi. Mahakala, the Great Black One, is another name for the Hindu god Shiva, but is also a name of one of Shiva’s main attendants. As such, depictions of him are sometimes found outside the doorways of Hindu temples as a forceful protector. Whether or not they are part of the Indian tradition, biographies of Palden Lhamo and Mahakala appeared in Tibet, describing the frightening things these figures did before they were turned to Buddhism. The third protector having a text in the Tengyur, however, is not a forceful one, but rather is Vaishravana, another Hindu god of wealth. In the Hindu traditions, Vaishravana is known by the name “Kubera” and, in some Tibetan iconographic representations of him, he has the same protruding bare belly as he has in Hindu depictions. Vaishravana however, was also the protector of Khotan, with which Tibet had considerable contact during the ninth and tenth centuries. Because of this contact, in many Tibetan paintings and images of Vaishravana, he wears the Iranian-style armor found with the Khotanese.

During the course of the development of protector practices in Tibet, the Tibetans added various other frightening harmful spirits to the ranks of Dharma protectors. Powerful personages, such as Padamasambhava, Guru Rinpoche, tamed such spirits, making them take an oath that bound them to serve Buddhism. This is linked to a very important psychological point in that these harmful spirits represent our fears. If we have the strength of mind, we can tame these fears and turn them into protectors for us. This is relevant because in Buddhism, we say that ultimately protection comes from within ourselves. In a sense, it is our own fears that we need to tame in order to feel safe and protected.

Tibet and Mongolia

In Tibet and later in Mongolia, all sorts of local spirits become protectors: the spirits of mountains, lakes and so on. This appears to parallel how in India the Hindu gods were brought in as protectors to make people feel safe. Likewise, the local forces, who had long been respected in Tibet, Mongolia, and Central Asia were brought in as well.

One interesting phenomenon that occurred was the gradual inclusion of the protectors of enemies. Many of the Central Asian peoples, Tibetans included, were constantly fighting each other. If the enemy were particularly powerful, you would want to deprive them of their protector and make their protector serve your own side instead. For instance, according to tradition, the figure that later came to be called Nechung in Tibet arose from a group of protector figures of the Bhata Hor people of Lake Baikal. The Bhata Hor most likely refer to the Orkhon Uighur Turks, whose original homeland included the Lake Baikal region. Toward the end of the eighth century, when Guru Rinpoche was invited to Tibet and the Orkhon Uighurs were ruling a huge empire spanning Mongolia and parts of Central Asia, the Tibetan Emperor Tri Song-detsen fought a three-way war against the Orkhon Uighurs and China. A few decades earlier, Bogu Qaghan, the Uighur ruler, declared Manichaeism as the state religion and disavowed the Uighur’s prior Buddhist faith. Guru Rinpoche, in the service of the Tibetan Emperor, enlisted this group of protector figures from a Uighur Buddhist monastery where they had been abandoned and neglected. As they would now be hostile toward the Uighurs, he bound them by oath to protect Buddhism at Samyey Monastery instead.

Another figure, Chamsing, also known as Beg-tse (Turkish: bekçi, guardian), was similarly incorporated into the Tibetan Buddhist sphere from Central Asia. According to tradition, Chamsing was tamed and brought in from Khotan, an oasis city-state in East Turkistan, most probably during the eleventh century. He wears Central Asian style armor. One hypothesis for the connection between Khotan, the Turkic name “Beg-tse,” the military armor, and the Tibetans is as follows. During the first half of the tenth century, the Qarakhanid Turks, previously known as the Qarluq, converted to Islam from their prior blend of Buddhism and their native Tengri beliefs. At the beginning of the eleventh century, the Qarakhanids expanded their empire further by conquering Buddhist Khotan and converting it to Islam. The Tibetans unsuccessfully came to the defense of the Khotanese. Whether Beg-tse was a protector spirit neglected by the Qarakhanids when they had followed Buddhism is difficult to determine. However, that is a possible explanation for how the first Tibetan propitiatory rituals for Cham-sing appeared at this time, with this curious blend of Khotanese and Turkic elements.

A slightly different example is with the Mongols and Mahakala. The Mongols adopted Tibetan Buddhism in the fourteenth century at the time of Khubilai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan. In particular, they adopted the Sakya tradition and appointed the Sakyas as the secular heads of Tibet. There are several scholarly theories as to why. One explanation is that the Tanguts, who ruled a kingdom at that time in the region between present-day Amdo and Inner Mongolia, had adopted Tibetan Buddhism and were avid followers of Mahakala. Genghis Khan, who had conquered most of the known world at that time, died in battle against the Tanguts, which shocked the Mongols. They reckoned that the supposedly weak Tanguts could only have been able to conquer the great Genghis Khan with the help of their protector Mahakala. Mahakala was also practiced strongly by the Karma Kagyus and the Sakyas. Subsequently, the Mongols invited the heads of the Karma Kagyu and Sakya lineages to visit them and Karma Pakshi, the second Karmapa, went.

At that time, there was a lot of rivalry among the different Mongol khans. Karma Pakshi turned down Khubilai Khan’s invitation and went instead to the court of the Mongke Khan. Khubilai Khan, however, eventually won in the power struggle for unification and control over all the Mongols. Offended by Karma Pakshi’s snub of his invitation and allegiance to his former rival, Khubilai Khan turned to the Sakyas as the favored holders of the practices and rituals of Mahakala. In doing so, he undoubtedly felt that he would gain the strength of the protector that had killed his grandfather, Genghis Khan. Some theories say that the Mongols were attracted to the “subtler philosophy” offered by the Sakyas, but this makes little sense if we look at the kind of people the Mongol rulers were. Foremost, they were hungry for power, and that, no doubt, attracted them to Mahakala.

Why Have a Protector?

My main teacher Serkong Rinpoche, who was one of the teachers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, explained that having a protector is like having a very strong and vicious dog. If you are a strong person, you could go sit and guard your own gate every night to make sure that thieves don’t attack, but usually people wouldn’t do that. It’s not that we don’t have the ability, it’s just: why bother? You could post a dog there instead.

In Tibet, they have huge dogs that are very vicious and can kill people, so to command them you have to be really strong, but you also need to be kind to the dog. You have to make sure you always feed it. But if you don’t feed such dogs every day and you aren’t nice to them or if you are weak, then the dog can attack and hurt you. It’s similar with Dharma protectors in that you don’t take them lightly if you are practicing with them. You make what is called a “damtsig” or close bond with the protectors, whereby you “feed” them and they “protect” you. So it’s a relationship in which they work for us and we are in control. Serkong Rinpoche always emphasized the importance of having command over the protectors, because we mustn’t be afraid of them. But we do have to make offerings to the protectors every day, and so we have protector ceremonies.

These rituals, which have been brought into Tibetan Buddhism, originate from pre-Buddhist Tibet where offerings and sacrifices were made to a wide variety of spirits: mountain spirits, locality spirits, and so on. In the ancient rituals, people would sacrifice animals, make blood offerings and so forth. Similarly, in the protector pujas we offer eleven sheep and eleven horses (for the four cardinal and four intermediary directions, as well as above, below and central) and all sorts of animal-like sacrifices, as well as cups of blood, but we don’t actually do this in reality, we just visualize it. This comes from the pre-Buddhist Tibetan cultural customs.